As a younger minister, I used to love reading “If I were starting out again” type articles. They always held out the promise of secrets, learned of course by hard experience, of how to live and lead successfully. I still like to read articles like that. It also has to be said that my age would qualify me to write an article like that!
The trouble is, however, we don’t get the chance to start again. Life might be like a board game in some respects, but when you’re playing a board game you can decide to start a new one without any consequences or implications from the previous game. New starts in life don’t happen like that; the history is permanent.
Of course this brings us to the whole issue of what might have been or what might not have been and the unwelcome spectre of regret.
Regret is a very powerful emotion. According to Hebrews 12, Esau spent a life locked in a kind of tearful regret:
You well know how Esau later regretted that impulsive act and wanted God’s blessing—but by then it was too late, tears or no tears. (Hebrews 12.17).
Regret drove Judas Iscariot to suicide.
How do we deal with regret?
Firstly, recognise regret for what it is.
Regret is, like unforgiveness, in that it is something that causes us to live in the hope of a better past. The foolishness of hoping for a better past highlights the pointlessness of regret. It has no power to change the past, but it has the power to keep us chained to the past.
Living in regret is like keeping driving around a roundabout and never taking an exit – you might be moving but you are going nowhere.
However, we can also redeem regret.
How can we do that? We can learn from our experience. It is one thing to make a mistake and learn from it, another to go on making the same mistake over and over again. If we have the courage to dissect our regret and the events which sparked it we might discover ways to avoid setting ourselves up for future disappointment.:
Give careful thought to the paths for your feet and be steadfast in all your ways. (Proverbs 4.26)
We can also use our regrets to help others. If we have a strong enough connection with others and the courage to reveal our regrets, we might help them to avoid the mistakes we have made.
The reverse is true as well. We can learn from the regrets of others. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul said that reflecting on the history of Israel could be used as a learning exercise.
And it is possible to be released from regret.
Paul decided to forget his past:
But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3.13-14)
The context makes it clear that Paul hadn’t forgotten the events of the past. What he had done was to change his focus towards a future spent serving Christ. Past performance would no longer shape his future expectation. He was not what he had done.
Our prayer might be “Lord give us the grace to forget.” And He will.